When to scale, and when to stay small - Issue #00011
This is how the two-person creative lab Anonymous runs a film festival, wins big projects, and survived the pandemic.
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I am so glad to share our next Foolish interview with you today. It’s with Felix Ng, cofounder of the creative lab Anonymous, who generously gave two hours of his time and openly shared the challenges — and opportunities — of a small studio.
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INTERVIEW: How Anonymous decided when to scale, and when to stay small
As fledgling graphic designers, Felix and his co-founder Germaine were held at arm's length by clients. While developing a brand identity for a restaurant, they never had a chance to taste the food. Another client claimed to do guerilla marketing but actually did above-the-line advertising, and when Felix pointed this out, he was told to stick to designing the logo.
“I felt like we were just designing the candy wrapper for this thing. I didn't really know what we were selling, whether it was good, whether it lived up to its promise.”
The situation amplified the value (or lack thereof) businesses saw in design. Design Film Festival — the studio’s first, most visible, and longest-running venture — was their response to the need to educate non-designers about the value of design.
“The design conversation had to move beyond its professional ghetto,” Felix says. A conference or book wasn’t the solution. “It's difficult to convince a banker or a housewife to go out and buy a huge design book, but if you ask them to spend 70 minutes watching a film on Dior, that’s quite simple.”
They convinced movie distributors in the US and Europe they were legit film festival producers and assembled a lineup of 8 films screened over 10 days in a 100-seat theatre.
On the first day, only 30 people showed up.
But those 30 people spread the word, the press came, and by the end of the run, 1,800 people had come to the screenings.
One would think the local design industry would get behind the festival. Instead, Felix was told he just got lucky. “A group of industry veterans said it was a stupid idea. But detractors like that, I realized, are fuel for me. Every time I have to prove someone wrong, I'm energized. I'm going to try to see if we can do it again.”
They did have the support of Mabel Tay, co-founder of Old School. She had transformed the abandoned buildings of a girls’ school into a space for the local creative community. Mabel offered the theatre to Felix rent-free, with instructions to “just make the space interesting.”
Old School was the Design Film Festival’s home for two years. But the city’s master plan had Old School earmarked for residential development, and in 2011 the lease was discontinued. It is now the site of Sophia Hills, a 495-unit condominium complex, and while some heritage structures were retained — and used to market the property —the creative space was gone for good.
They didn’t know it then, but losing the rent-free venue was the turning point that pushed Design Film Festival to grow.
While they had lost their Singapore venue, the festival was invited to stage screenings in Portland and Taipei, and demand back home remained. So in 2013, Felix decided to try staging the festival in Singapore again.
Expensive rent continued to be the barrier. “We went to every single museum in Singapore. We went to all the galleries. The minute we went in for the meeting, bam! This is business for them. They all wanted to charge us corporate rates because we were not a nonprofit. It was SG$30,000 for two days.”
They also tried government grants. “We went to the Singapore National Agency for Design and said we want to help non-designers understand the process through film. They said, ah okay, but this is a film event. This is not a design event. You should talk to the Media Development Authority. So we went to MDA, and they said, oh, this is an art event, this is not a film event. So we went to the National Arts Council and they said, this is a design event. This is not an arts event. To them design is business. Art is about painting, about folk music. It's not about this intersection of different things.”
They were out of options. But because there was demand, Felix decided to gamble (his word). “We put in all the money we had, $30,000 for two days’ rental. We did it at the School of the Arts.”
That year, the festival sold between 3,500 to 4,000 tickets, with every screening nearly full house. They almost broke even. The experience made them realize they needed to grow.
“The only way we could survive and not let this film festival become a project that was constantly bleeding money is to scale. There is a certain fixed cost to running a film festival: licensing the films, printing, promotion. If we can only sell 4,000 tickets, we can't make it sustainable. The only way we could sustain this is if we had more screenings.”
So in 2014, they moved the film festival to Shaw Lido, one of Singapore’s oldest theatres and a nostalgic place for three generations of Singaporeans. From 8 screenings the previous year, they hosted 30 and sold out every single one.
“That was the year Design Film Festival exploded. I think it was 6,500 or 7,500 people. It was not just a one-day, two-day event, it ran over two, three weeks. And we got more and more press coverage.”
It had taken five years, but Design Film Festival was finally on the path to sustainability. 2014 was also the year when the majority of festival-goers (60%) didn’t work in design. People had flown in from Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Portland.
“If you are small, you die. If you don't scale and take that risk, it's hard to grow.”
Ten years in, the festival has screened 97 films to over 100,000 viewers in 8 Singapore editions, 11 international editions, and private screenings for design-led organizations like Christian Dior, Steelcase, and Zoukout.
Here’s how Felix thinks about scaling: “How do you build things for people who don't care, but who could benefit from it? Scaling is not just about growing an audience, making more money. It's also about helping to change more people's lives and help more people discover things. The number of people you serve directly impacts the value of the work.”
Felix generously gave two hours of his time for this interview. There’s a lot more detail here that didn’t make it into the article, so have a listen.
3 ways Anonymous leverages its network:
1. Getting big names to participate in their studio project Books Read By
Felix is a designer who really wanted to be a writer. Books Read By, launched as a pandemic project, is a growing resource of book recommendations from creatives around the world.
It features the region’s creative sparks like Eugene Kan, Chef Pam, and Paco Guerrero. They’ve also convinced hard-to-get people like WIRED founding editor Kevin Kelly, journalist and podcaster Ann Friedman, and The Gentlewoman editor-in-chief Penny Martin to participate in their project. How?
“The last question: Whose reading lists are you most curious about? We deliberately built that in as a network effect. That's the next person we're going to feature. The power moves away from us to this person, who selects another person, then another person selects another person.”
2. Winning a big account without pitching for it
In 2010, Felix launched a magazine called Bracket to help creatives navigate the world. He interviewed John C Jay, a seasoned creative at creative agency Weiden+Kennedy.
Years later, Felix reconnected with John, now global creative head at Uniqlo, who wanted to understand shopping and street culture in Singapore and Southeast Asia.
“He asked a bunch of questions: How is shopping in Singapore? Where's cool? What's interesting? What do people wear? I thought maybe he was just curious. A couple of days later, his assistant emailed again, asking me who I think are the really good creators in Asia.”
Felix didn't think about it too much until a few months later when he was told that Uniqlo was going to open their first Southeast Asian flagship store, in Singapore, and was asked if he wanted to work on the project.
“All of us have this imposter syndrome. When someone asks us to do something that we've never done before, you feel that you want to do it because you're going to be able to stretch and do something more difficult. But you always have this doubt in yourself, whether or not you're the right person. So I asked, isn't Dentsu, the agency of record, going to be working on this?”
Uniqlo wanted to work on the project in a different way. Felix would be the creative director and producer for the project. He’d go on two months of field research (read: travel to Southeast Asian cities and spend time with young people doing interesting things), develop the brief, and bring on creatives as the strategy dictated. He’s written extensive field notes about that research here.
This approach reflected a broader trend of brands setting up in-house creative teams. It makes sense: Why outsource the strategy to an agency that specializes in TV ads before you know you need TV ads?
“It’s not the agency who solves the brief. Defining what we are going to do is actually the solution. When I hand off the brief to a motion graphics designer, to an artist, to a design studio, what is happening is they are giving me an interpretation of the solution.”
3. Collaborating, not hiring
“I used to identify myself as a designer who makes things. It's very much about me, my world, the legacy I want to build, my portfolio. The life of a designer can sometimes feel very egoistic.”
But spending time with talented creators in Manila, Ho Chi Minh, Bangkok, experiencing the culture and community spirit in these cities, changed the way Felix thinks about his life’s work as a designer.
“My role now is about helping other people do their best work. It's not about my name. It's not about my vision. It's about: how do we find incredible talent and then put them in the spotlight, guide them to do their best work.”
The same people that Felix wanted to work with were also changing the way they wanted to work. The independent creative entrepreneur was on the rise -- talented individuals who no longer wanted to work for a company and were choosing to work for themselves instead. They were doing it from anywhere and getting back their time to make and build their own brand, their own small business, their own platform.
Anonymous had 6 people on payroll at one point. Instead of hiring more people, which was getting harder to do anyway, Felix decided to go back to a two-person studio and redesigned his organization.
“The model we are using now is like Lego. Depending on the project, we can use different Lego pieces to form a different shape. Instead of saying we are a design company with web developers, copywriters, designers, art directors, we can morph. We look at the brief, we realize that it requires an advertising approach, then we build ourselves to be like an advertising agency. If we need to do an event like Design Film Festival, then we will form a team based on that.”
This has opened up partnerships that would otherwise not be possible. “In Manila, there’s no way I can hire Dan [Matutina, founder of branding studio Plus63 and an in-demand illustrator]. It's impossible for me to hire Dan. But it's easy when we are collaborating on projects. So if we have a project and I think Dan will be interested, then everyone gets featured. It's not just Anonymous. It's different people in the Philippines or Thailand or Vietnam.”
Felix could not have known how this arrangement would serve them well during the pandemic. “If we had a five, ten, twenty-man team, there's no way in hell we can survive. When the pandemic hit, if you had a payroll of 10, 20 people, you probably went through a lot of pain, but we were okay because it's just two people.”
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